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Seeing Red… as in Riding Hood, Coppola’s Somewhere doesn’t really go anywhere

by Mark Burger

In many ways, Red Riding Hood is a mess. But Catherine Hardwicke’s adaptation (and expansion) of the classic fairy tale is not without its entertaining moments.

The fetching Amanda Seyfried plays the title role, here named Valerie, the doe-eyed medieval maiden whose village has long been plagued by werewolf attacks. Superstition and paranoia are rife among the populace. Valerie’s mother (Virginia Madsen) and boozy but lovable father (Billy Burke) fear that she could be next on the monster’s menu.

Hardwicke amps up the sexual overtones of the story by having Valerie torn between Peter (Shiloh Fernandez) and Henry (Max Irons, son of Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack). The themes of repression and religious oppression are personified by Solomon (Gary Oldman), a werewolf-hunting priest (yes, indeed) who comes at the behest of the villagers to lay waste the werewolf once and for all.

While Oldman acts up a storm as the pious zealot, who arrives replete with an entourage, Seyfried’s Valerie gets close to both Peter, whom she’s always adored, and Henry, who may be new on the scene but is at least no slouch. What’s a poor girl to do, aside from avoiding the wrong kind of wolf calls?

Some scenes are lushly romantic, others are straightforward horror and still others offer an ironic (sometimes bluntly so) commentary on the original story. Tying them all together proves problematic, and ultimately out of Hardwicke’s reach.

As the fearful but impetuous heroine, Seyfried is a delectable damsel in distress, and Madsen is very much a looker as her mom. On the flip side, Fernandez and Irons are very much strapping and brooding as Valerie’s competing suitors. Lest one forget, Hardwicke directed the first Twilight film, and Red Riding Hood is very much geared toward that audience… even if the (box-office-friendlier) PG-13 rating robs the film of its more wicked possibilities.

Julie Christie, looking quite smashing herself, plays Grandmother, to whose house Valerie goes. And sooner or later, on one of those trips, we know what’s going to happen. There is a whodunit aspect to the story, although the identity of the culprit isn’t terribly surprising. (Clues, like nuances, are anything but subtle here.)

Incidentally, Christie is the only member of the cast who seems totally in on the joke. Everyone else plays it very seriously, although Oldman appears to be having fun.

This is not a film lacking for symbolism, and that symbolism is blatant, sometimes humorously so. Yet that’s part of Red Riding Hood’s florid, sometimes frightfully silly, execution. It’s extremely uneven, but it’s not a lazy film. A sly wit sometimes surfaces in David Johnson’s screenplay — when it’s not being buried by the visuals — but it’s never truly unleashed. In the end, no aspect of the film really is.

Then again, the story of Red Riding Hood isn’t exactly a paragon of great literature. There’s room for fun to be had with it, and even if the fun veers into absurd and even uncontrollable directions — which it does here — there is a crazy energy at work. You may not be afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, but given half a chance, you just might be tickled.

With Somewhere writer/producer/ director Sofia Coppola appears intent on revisiting some of the themes she explored in her Oscar-winning break-out film, Lost in Translation (2004), only this time the results are less fresh and less effective, to say nothing of overly familiar.

Stephen Dorff plays Johnny Marco, a Hollywood action star numbed by, and to, his success. Steeped in self-pity, this skirt-chasing loafer gets something of a wake-up call (and, perhaps, new leases on career and life) when he is saddled with his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) — right in the middle of promoting his latest film.

There are some mildly amusing digs at moviemaking, with Michelle Monahan in a bright cameo as Johnny’s acerbic co-star and a surprise elevator encounter with Benicio Del Toro (who’s funny without saying anything), but Somewhere drifts along aimlessly — not unlike its main character — spinning its wheels in a low gear.

There is, however, a nice father/daughter dynamic rapport between the two leads, even if the older man/younger girl motif isn’t all that far removed from Lost in Translation. Dorff, whose character could almost be a younger version of Bill Murray’s in Translation, hasn’t had a role this good in years and Fanning again proves that big sister Dakota isn’t the only talent in the family, yet the overall film doesn’t tap enough into their potential, or the story’s. And we never do find out who’s been sending Johnny those nasty text messages.

There’s nice cinematography Harris Savides, and the film is something of a Coppola family affair, with Sofia’s brother Roman a producer and their father Francis an executive producer.

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